Tuesday, October 16th, 2012

The Broken Nature of Civic Leadership by Alex Ihnen

[ This is a topic I plan to return to in the blog, but I’m frequently surprised by the naivete of urbanists who assume that civic plans must be fundamentally rooted in a desire to make the city better, when in reality many of them are plain and simple cronyism and corruption. There’s been a vast decline in civic leadership culture in recent years that has really torn of the veneer that used to cover up some of this. Alex Ihnen gives us a perfect example of the way things really work in cities in this piece that originally ran in nextStL. Sadly, this sort of thing is hardly limited to St. Louis or notorious corruption hotbeds like Chicago. It’s standard operating procedure in way too many places – Aaron. ]


Post-Dispatch reporters Stephen Deere and David Hunn have a must read article about corruption in St. Louis. Though it's not where you might expect to find it, the story lays bare the incestuous nature of the city's politics, "civic leaders" and cultural institutions they govern.

The details from the Post-Dispatch are bad enough: the Missouri History Museum purchased a failed barbecue restaurant at 5863 Delmar Boulevard from former city mayor Freeman Bosley, Jr. for $875,000 in 2006. A search of the city's property database shows the site to be the only property owned by the museum other than their home in Forest Park and the library and research center on Skinker Boulevard. The museum also paid $101,000 in legal fees for the purchase, as well as $16,000 in unpaid taxes and then paid to demolish the failed restaurant. That's a total of $992,000+ for one acre. Bosely Jr. and a business partner bought the then 1.65 acre lot and vacant McDonald's in 1999 for $150,000. The lot was divided and homes were built facing Enright Avenue. Bosely Jr. acquired $730,000 in loans, including $255,000 from the city from 1999-2004. If you're keeping track, that's $880,000 total.

The sale occured without a professional appraisal and without the property ever being listed for sale. As reported by the P-D, the chair of the museum board stated that members of the board were real estate professionals and so no appraisal was needed. Specifically, Realtor Elizabeth Robb is on the museum board. She claims that the property is worth more than $800,000 today. The lot is adjacent to the old Delmar High School purchased by Blueberry Hill owner and Loop Trolley developer Joe Edwards in 2004 for $333,000. That building will serve as a trolley car storage and maintenance facility.

You should read Deere and Hunn's P-D story. And you should definitely read Bill McClellan's absolutely brutal take on the issue. He propsoses that Robb and Archibald buy the property from the museum for $850,000 – "no need for an appraisal" he says.

Now that you know the details, you should know that this isn't an isolated incidient, a one-off, not-meant-to-be-reported issue. The list of names that govern St. Louis, the city, the county, its cultural institutions and civic efforts, is frighteningly small. Are we to believe that these are the only people capable of getting things done? That there's simply no other way? That the city and region would stagnate and wallow in its current state if these community luminaries didn't serve us by cutting million dollar deals for vacant lots on Delmar?

It's simply beyond frustrating that our civic institutions are governed by people who continue to show that they can't govern. Perhaps it's not unique to St. Louis that the same names pop up again and again on park boards, school boards, museum boards, non-profits and other civic efforts (think Edward Jones Dome, the effort to remake the Arch grounds and the coming campaign for more local tax money). Perhaps it's not a unique civic failure, but it is our failure.

Corrupt transactions like this make it difficult to support local institutions. Just last year, the P-D reported that the Science Center paid executives more than $260,000 in bonues. It employed nine vice-presidents. Each of the institutions included in the publicly funded zoo-museum taxing district (St. Louis City and County) paid their executive directors between $440-640K in salary, while often adding free housing and vehicle allowances of up to $1,000 per month. These are large institutions and require experienced professionals to run them and they should be well compensated. But it's clear that in more than one instance, the individuals sitting on the boards of these institutons have willfully neglected their responsiblity to the public.

Oh, and if you're not particularly happy about the history museum land deal, the issue at the science center, or the Ram's lease, or the Arch grounds, or… well, sorry. The next time you turn around and see that the city, or one of its cultural institutions is embarking on some bold new endeavor, you will see the same cast of civic actors on stage, the same backroom, off-the-books deals will have already been made, and St. Louis will continue to suffer as a result.

This post originally appeared in nextStL on September 18, 2012.

Topics: Urban Culture
Cities: St. Louis

3 Responses to “The Broken Nature of Civic Leadership by Alex Ihnen”

  1. Matthew Hall says:

    I have lived in both cities. I lived in Cincinnati first and was shocked to find that St. Louis was MORE dysfunctional and corrupt than Cincinnati. I would not have believed that possible before I moved. Cincinnati politics were full of some of the most shameless and sustained use of the race card and incestous dealing I had ever witnesses up to that point. A gang of mutually dependent business and familial interests had turned Cincinnati into something like a family business from which they took money in everyway they could think of. City govn’t has become more pragmatic and results oriented in Cincinnati in recent years, but it does seem that St. Louis continues to be fundamentally undermined by corruption. The fact that St. Louis is not truly self-governing and operates under a kind of suspension of the normal rules of local govn’t for a Missouri municipality is part of it. When it is clear to people that what local govn’t is doing matters, it becomes more pragmatic and results oriented in my experience. Give St. Louis the power and simply pay attention to what it is doing and local politics will become more pragmatic. A campaign to get rid of the ward system would be a good start for an ambitious reformer looking to change St. Louis.

  2. Perhaps even more disheartening is that a city’s handful of power brokers, some of whom have genuine starry-eyed and commendable intentions, often sincerely believe planning is teleological and should be: that once X and Y are accomplished, urban problem Z will essentially be resolved and we can move boldly into an impeccable future. Even cities with relatively low levels of corruption (which are admittedly few) suffer from this problem, and the results of misbegotten ambitions can be so destructive that they still pass as cronyism. The question remains: what are we doing wrong right now, quite obliviously, that will have lasting implications?

  3. TMLutas says:

    We have a broken control system in the US political system. The technology driven rise of independent political operators has crippled the parties and now we all have to independently judge what’s going on because we can’t depend on parties to impose discipline. The trouble is that we have ~90k governments to oversee and individually we range between 2 to a dozen governments we have oversight on.

    Our governments have fallen down on the job to present their books to the people in a format accessible to them within the time generally allotted by non-professionals for the task (0.5-1.5 hours per week for working adults, as much as 5 hours for the retired). At present pace it’s going to be better than a decade before governments are generally sharing their information in an appropriate manner to make popular oversight more than a very bad joke.

    In the urban milieu it is even worse because the interdependencies are the most complex and difficult to keep track of. We have even more need for data and analytical systems in cities and they simply aren’t where they need to be.

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